The Last Key (2/10)


Calum gripped the back of Jerome’s chair as the rest of the team, Tami and Kira, stood behind them. He liked Alma, had personally cashed in a lot of his goodwill with the Galactic Commission to approve such a young member of the team, although she didn’t know that. She was twenty-six, bright and creative, with a remarkable anthropological intuition. But the eyes of the galaxy were on this expedition, and it only would be bad for her—and for him, under the Commission’s scrutiny—if her occasional recklessness put her in trouble.

As resident comp-eng, Jerome got the seat directly in front of the screen hub. The dashboard was busy with video displays and statistic readings, taken from Alma’s helmet feed and her ship, which was now grounded four hundred meters from the city’s green-covered wall. Calum and his team watched in electric anticipation as Alma approached the twelve-story structure on foot. She was accompanied by a personal drone, which hovered just behind her to provide robotic support when she needed it.

Jerome voiced the question on everyone’s mind. “The shrubs, the trees, that moss-like coating… is it natural? Could this much life really exist here?”

“I hope so,” breathed Calum. “Otherwise it’s the work of ecoconstruction, which means someone was here before us.”

“Impossible,” said Jerome. “We’re the first scientists of any sort to get to visit this planet since, well, Departure.” Distaste framed his voice, and the others understood the subtext: they were the first Earthbound expedition approved by the Galactic Commission despite centuries of scientific and public campaigns.

“Galactic policy was there for good reason,” said Calum. “Of the few illicit Earth-landings we know of, most came unprepared and died of radiation poisoning soon after.”

“Could it—this moss, or whatever—have been the Lunar Colony?” wondered Kira, from behind them, turning attention back to the strangeness at hand. “As the self-proclaimed stewards of Earth, they haven’t been in communication with the galaxy for thousands of years. Who knows what they’re up to?”

Calum shook his head. “The Lunar Colony may be reclusive, but we also know that they barely have the resources to support themselves, let alone undertake planetary ecoconstruction. I think it comes from something already on Earth, or else we’re much blinder than we thought.”

Tami, the team’s foremost ecologist, motioned to the plant life on the screen and said, “If this is the work of ecoconstruction, it cannot be more than one thousand years old, maybe two.” Calum nodded his agreement.

There was silence, bar the faint comm static, as Alma neared the wall. The sealed entrance to the old city loomed above her helmet feed. She now stood no more than a meter away from the wall of the sliding gate, although it was not so differentiable from the rest of the city wall beneath the unbroken moss.

“It seems pretty thick, this moss—not smooth at all, but lumpy.” Alma’s voice was distantly staticky, but it was transmitted through her resting ship and the signal was no less powerful. “It’s dark green and black, seems sort of patchy, and it really is coating the entire wall… as far as I can see, there is no exposure of the original metal to the outside.”

“Is it subsisting off the metal?” asked Jerome. “Is there still metal under there?”

“It’s possible the metal is a food source, I suppose, but it seems unlikely,” said Kira. “Food is really two things: a source of energy and a source of materials, primarily carbon. The steel used in the city walls would have little of those, at least until it began to break down under some really corrosive product. It’s hard to see how any sort of life could subsist off metal like this moss seems to be doing.” The team lapsed into silence, stumped.

“I’m collecting a sample,” commed Alma. Calum started to raise his hand, but let her proceed. Alma’s drone floated up to the wall and extended a pick that scraped off some of the dark moss into a vial, which retracted into its belly. “I wonder if the external entrance box is still around here.”

She glanced around. Her helmet feed showed a small, rectangular protrusion from the wall several meters to her right, and Alma stepped over to it. Calum stood tensely. “Alma,” he warned, “no one has touched that entrance box in thousands of years.”

Jerome looked over his shoulder at the team leader. “She knows what she’s doing, Calum.”

“None of us know what this is, yet—we need time to think about it.”

“It’s just moss, and you know how valuable every day on this planet is.”

Calum pursed his lips in irritation. Jerome was right: the Galactic Commission’s timeframe was frustratingly thin.

Alma reached out a gloved hand and laid a finger on the surface of the moss-covered box. The dark vegetation was firm, but flaked off with a little rubbing, unprepared for such a systematic offense. Alma soon scraped away the last bits of moss covering the surface and saw a metallic shimmer beneath—

The others, staring raptly at the display, heard nothing but saw her tumble to the ground as her helmet feed flickered and went black.